Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Taking a Closer Look at Maley Drive, Part 2: Project Suburbia

In Part 1 of this blogseries, I indicated that I would follow-up with a second part of the series – one focusing on the Maley Drive Extension and the expectations that building this new road will lead to growth.  Since writing Part 1, it’s become clear to me that the myth that growth brings about prosperity is alive and well in our City – and is being used by some as a definitive argument to embrace Maley.  In some cases, those critics, like me, are being dismissed as “defeatists” or "anti-development" because we champion sustainability over last century’s growth-focused development paradigm.  

Clearly, there is a need for a more significant level of education about costs and benefits, and about the future in general.  With scarce financial resources at our disposal, it is now more important than ever that we invest in infrastructure which will meet the needs of the community.  With that in mind, I’ve decided to extend this blogseries through the inclusion of a Part 2 different from the one that I had originally contemplated.  In this “new Part 2”, I’ll discuss why the project of suburban development is ultimately one which must be halted, without fanfare, because it is not sustainable.  In Part 3, I’ll return to my original plan and identify why Maley Drive will not facilitate growth in the way that so many are claiming it will.

A Conversion on the Road to the Future

There may not have been a single “Road to Damascus” moment for former City of Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion.  McCallion had one of the lengthiest – and arguably the most brilliant – of careers of any head of Council in Ontario.  When “Hurricane Hazel” took over as Mayor of Mississauga in 1978, the newly amalgamated (1971) City’s population stood at just over 280,000.  By the time McCallion retired in 2014, Mississauga had bloomed to over 710,000 people – making it Canada’s 6th largest City.

Most of the growth in Mississauga which happened under McCallion’s watch could be described as “suburban” in nature, although in her later terms of office, McCallion and the City underwent a slow conversion to new urbanism sparked by the creation of a new City Centre at Burnhamthorpe and Hurontario (where Mississauga’s “celebrated” City Hall today sits surrounded by soaring condominium towers).  For a long time, Mississauga residents enjoyed one of the perks of runaway development – 0% tax increases – as the City’s budget was sustained through the collection of development charges.

Of course, the 0% tax increase party has been over in Mississauga for a while now, and suburban development has been exposed for the unsustainable Ponzi Scheme that it is.  McCallion might have been one of the first in Mississauga to seriously ask the question, “just what have we done?” and then attempted to atone for her ways by embracing new urbanist principles.  But even Mississauga’s most popular leader couldn’t change the minds of residents married to the idea of sprawl development – at least not until taxes were forced to rise (see: “Mississauga on the eve of Hazel McCallion’s departure:Hume," the Toronto Star, February 21, 2014).  It may have taken some time, but “the capital of suburbia” is in the process of intensifying and retrofitting itself, through the use of smart growth and new urbanist principles.  The goal is sustainability for built form, transportation, and the municipal budget.

The End of the Oil Age

Writing about Mississauga’s experience with suburban development may seem like a strange place to start a blogpost about Maley Drive, a proposed new road in Sudbury’s north end.  Mississauga is, after, quite unlike Greater Sudbury in many respects – although if one looks back at the Mississauga of the late 1960s, one might be able to discern similarities between that Mississauga and today’s Greater Sudbury (although the differences remain, including one of the biggest: 1960’s Toronto Township, which became Mississauga in 1971, was primed for growth, due to its proximity to the City of Toronto.  Today’s Greater Sudbury isn’t growing to any significant degree at all, and sits in the centre of region which has experienced a decline in population for several decades, and which is forecast to continue to decline).  However, both Mississauga and Greater Sudbury are struggling with one issue in common: how to retrofit a largely suburban development form with the infrastructure needed to face the challenges of the 21st Century.

The challenges of the 21st Century are quite unlike those of the 20th Century.  It all starts with the end of the Oil Age – or at least, the end of the era of cheap oil – an era whose door was firmly closed at the conclusion of the 1990s.  Although oil remains an abundant resource, digging it out of the ground, processing it and transporting it have made the commodity very expensive.  Despite the expense, a global glut of oil due to over-production in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is keeping prices down, and a long-predicted economic slow-down might lead to even lower prices.  That’s cold comfort for Canadian motorists, who continue to pay significantly higher prices today than at almost any time in the past (except for 2007-2008).

The glut isn’t sustainable, however, as production will likely slow as the economic downturn continues.  Production should begin to even itself out as demand decreases due to economic inactivity and cheaper renewable energy.  This evening out will likely means job layoffs in the fossil energy sector.  Predictably, lower prices will give way to higher prices when demand starts to increase again, and production needs to be wound back up.  It’s all a part of the familiar cycle that we’ve lived through now for decades – but the long term trend for prices has only gone one way – up.
But there’s a monkey wrench that will eventually be thrown into the mix which will disrupt this cycle.  When the world begins to get serious about climate change, one of the outcomes will be that existing fossil resources will need to be left in the ground, safely sequestering a carbon resource which we dare not burn.  This won’t happen all at once – indeed, the notion of not exploiting known resources seems strange to a large number of people today – some can hardly fathom it.  However, there really is no escaping the fact that the world can’t get serious about mitigating against the impacts of climate change and burning all of our known fossil resources.

It’s already happening with coal – the world’s first “stranded asset”.  Heavy oil like that found in the tar sands will be the next.  The more carbon-rich a resource, the more likely that it will be at the head of the stranded asset class.  We’ll continue to develop and exploit deposits of less carbon-intensive fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, right up until we don’t need to any more.  The first part of the 21st Century will see a significant shift away from fossil resources and towards renewables – a process which likely won’t be completed until the end of the Century.

But there really is no denying that it will happen.  It must happen. 

The Electrification of the Future

In a world where fossil energy is no longer inexpensive – or no longer a vialble energy source at all – is Mississauga’s and Greater Sudbury’s predominant form of low-density development (“suburbia”) sustainable?  There is some suggestion that with the right technological development, we could theoretically sustain this sprawling development pattern.  Electric vehicles could simply replace oil-burning cars and trucks, while the equivalent of electric gas stations might start popping up along well-travelled corridors.  Better batteries (which are almost certainly going to be a reality) will give drivers the ability to continue travelling long distances as ever before.

Or is this just a dream? 

Electrification is bound to be the civilizational project of this century.  We’ll finally have completed the endeavour begun in the 1800s – and interrupted by cheap, often publicly subsidized, oil (see: “Time to Complete the Electrical Revolution,” Dr. David Robinson, Economics for Northern Ontario, June 14, 2015).  As we make the shift away from fossil energy, electricity will be the go-to fuel source to meet an ever-growing number of our energy needs, including for transportation of ourselves and the goods we purchase, and for heating our homes.  The development of an distributed smart grid will help lower costs and reduce waste.  However, there will be a significant cost to electrification – and it’s certainly not clear that we’ll be paying less for electricity over the next several decades.

With higher costs to move personal vehicles around on highways, will personal vehicle ownership continue to make sense for most middle class Canadians?  Already, Canadians are choosing to drive less.  Car ownership rates are down considerably amongst millennials (see: “The many reasonsmillennials are shunning cars,” the Washington Post, October 14, 2014) and seniors are finding that car ownership, coupled with rising insurance rates, may not be appropriate for fixed-income budgeting.

Reassessing the 'Suburban Dream'

Higher energy costs, and a greater focus on conservation, will ensure that the future of suburbia isn’t what it used to be (see: “America’sSuburban Dream is Over. You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next,” Andrei Burke, Ultraculture, April 30, 2014).  With this in mind, sustainable development forms become even more important, as the shift towards more livable communities (read: transit accessible, walkable, mixed-use, bike-friendly) is already underway.  There is no stopping this trend.

With this knowledge in mind, it’s not difficult to understand why a major municipal leader like Mississauga’s Mayor Hazel McCallion acknowledged the need for retrofits in her City.  To be better poised to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, and to seize the opportunities, McCallion recognized that Mississauga had to transform itself into something more than a low-density bedroom community.  Continuing to do things the same way that they had always been done would have led to financial ruin for Mississauga, while getting out in front of the livability trend would better position her City to be able to prosper.

The recipe is the same for Greater Sudbury, although the ingredients are going to be a little different.  Unlike Mississauga, Greater Sudbury has largely continued to put off its day of reckoning with suburban sprawl.  There have been some positive signs, however, including new higher-density development on lots in fully-serviced areas of the City.  But new condo developments have run into trouble (see: “Sudbury homebuyers still ‘experimenting’ with condominiums,” CBC News, July 15, 2015), and the majority of the Ctiy’s new population has found itself living outside of the former City of Sudbury – in most cases in suburban style subdivisions, rather than in more urban forms in the cores of outlying communities.

There are many in Greater Sudbury who embrace this 20th Century style of development.  I understand why – it’s easy to continue to believe that the future will look like the past – or at least the part of the past that we are familiar with.  I grew up in the “splendid suburbia” of Brampton – Bramalea, to be precise.  Growing up, I never thought very much about just how new and “innovative” planned suburban communities were – to me, they were just natural.  And when I encountered different forms of development, such as on those occasions when my dad would take me to Carleton and Yonge to see a hockey game at Maple Leaf gardens – I would lament the fact that people had to live in the filth and grime of Toronto because their circumstances didn’t allow them to own a suburban home like ours.  It was only later in life that I came to realize just how bizarre suburban living actually is in the context of historical human settlement patterns.  Bizarre, yes – but still very popular.

The Myth of Who Pays For What

The popularity of suburbia has, however, been oversold.  Literally.  I am of the opinion that suburban development would not be so popular if suburban occupants were paying the real costs of living of their own lifestyle choices.   Many of these costs are hidden – and because they are hidden, it’s not the suburban resident who picks up the tab – the costs are subsidized by all taxpayers.  These hidden costs are numerous and insidious (see: “Suburban Sprawl: Exposing HiddenCosts, Identifying Innovations,” Sustainable Prosperity, October 2013).

However, despite the very real evidence that taxpayers are subsidizing suburban homeowners, the myth that suburban residents pay more than their fair share to society (in the form of high property taxes) remains largely unchallenged – and as a result, prevalent.  Here in Greater Sudbury, hardly a day goes by where someone isn’t posting on social media about how their taxes are paying for downtown development, and how much better off places like the Valley and Chelmsford would be if suburban taxpayers there erected a firewall.  People who live in the Valley are good people – they are my neighbours.  But they are also very wrong when it comes to the notion that they are financially supporting the inner city – the opposite is clearly true, thanks to hidden costs which are picked up by municipal property tax payers.

Christopher Hume, in his piece about Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, linked to above, provided a revealing statistic which he saw first in a book authored by former Toronto Mayor John Sewell.  This statistic should have some resonance with Greater Sudburians, as we tend to have a pretty substantial “roads focus”.  Hume writes, “In his wonderfully informative book, “Shape of the Suburbs”, former Toronto Mayor John Sewell points out a revealing statistic: there are five feet of road for every city dweller; 18 feet for every suburbanite. That pretty much sums up the situation.”

Rethinking the Future

We know that the City of Greater Sudbury is already facing a massive infrastructure deficit.  Simply put, we’ve not been investing in maintaining our sprawling sewer, water and transportation infrastructure.  Had Greater Sudbury experienced a Mississauga Moment back in the 1950s, before we committed ourselves to building our Northern version of “splendid suburbia”, it’s doubtful that we would have chosen to undertake the project in the first place – and instead would have required a significantly more dense form of development – one which is easier and less expensive to service, and one which is more livable.  Of course, in Greater Sudbury's defence, most cities in North America opted to go the car-dependent route.  Hindsight is 20/20.  But today, given all that we know, there is no longer any good reason to shun the foresight that we have about the form of development that we need to embrace in the 21st Century.

Of course, there are a lot of bad reasons to continue doing things the way that they’ve always been done.  First, suburbia is popular.  Second, the idea that “growth” will pay for itself is prevalent.  Third, there are many influential supporters of the status quo out there which have a vested interest in continuing to do things as they’ve always been done.  Fourth, there are just some people who don’t believe in the future – or at least the version of the future that they themselves are likely to experience – and who will do whatever they can to stave off that future’s arrival.  Unfortunately for us, many of those people are the leaders of our communities, our provinces and our nations.  Our elected officials, our leaders of business and industry, even our educators and public servants – too many continue to fight for the future of the past, rather than the future that we are actually likely to get.

Maley Drive and the Decline of the Growth-Centred Paradigm

And this brings us back to Maley Drive.  There are some very loud voices in our City who are championing the creation of the Maley Drive extension, in part because they believe that building this new road will facilitate growth in our City.  Growth, they believe, is the panacea to all of the City’s problems, despite the fact that the City has grown over the past 100 years and, well, here we are. 

In Part 3 of my blogseries, I’ll explore the sort of future that we are likely to have in Greater Sudbury, and why Maley Drive will actually prove to be an impediment to that future.  I’ll discuss sustainability vs. growth, and show how the project of enlarging the “splendid suburbia” on the low density fringes of our City just isn’t in the cards for a number of reasons. 

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada) 

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